BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Ex-Detective (and Flashback addict) Nick Bottom is hired by a powerful Japanese dignitary to solve his son’s murder in a near-future United States on the brink of total economic and political collapse.
PROS: The dark depiction of the near-future U.S. is a good backdrop; an engrossing murder mystery; the tense family drama; interesting characters even though they’re not necessarily good people.
CONS: The occasional political messages weigh it down.
BOTTOM LINE: Enjoyable on several levels: as a murder mystery, as a family drama, and (to a lesser degree) as a cautionary tale.
It is to my great shame that I have never read a Dan Simmons novel, a tragedy I sought to rectify with Flashback, Simmons’ newest novel. The title refers to a drug that allows its user to re-live his life experiences with unbelievable clarity — an ability so intoxicating that 85 percent of Americans are hooked. The addiction is so all-consuming that addicts are indifferent to the impending total collapse of the country, an inevitable conclusion to its already deteriorated condition.
In this grim near future lives Nick Bottom, an ex-Detective in Denver Colorado shamed into early retirement by his addiction to flashback, the drug he began consuming in order to re-live moments with his recently-deceased wife, Dara. Nick’s addiction also led to him alienating his teenage son, Val, who now lives in a turbulent California supposedly under the care of Nick’s aging father-in-law, George Leonard Fox, a professor who can’t even begin to persuade this seriously troubled teen. Nick’s condition is all but hopeless, yet he is hired by a powerful Japanese dignitary (Nakamura) to solve the six year-old murder case of Nakamura’s son…a case Nick couldn’t solve when he originally worked on it before the case went cold and he was still sober.
Nick takes the case, of course, if only to finance his flashback addiction. Partnered with Nakamura’s watchful security chief, Sato, Nick begins to retrace his steps, re-interviewing witnesses to the grisly murder and eventually uncovering new facts that, if brought to light, will change the balance of world power.
How can that be? As mentioned, it turns out that this near future is home to a United States that is no longer a world power. Over the course of two decades, Japan and India have assumed the roles of the world’s superpowers. The main export of the United States is now military might lent to foreign nations (the draft is in effect for all males 17 years of age), and reconquista rebellions have altered the U.S. map; Colorado has effectively become its southern border. This is the way it’s been since “The Day it All Hit the Fan”. Now, a day in the life of Americans entails traffic reports that divert their electric cars from terrorist attacks; the end of public entertainment with former corporate-owned stadiums and other large public venues now being used as prisons (Dodger Stadium Homeland Security Detention Center, for example); and, of course, the prevalence of the flashback drug ensuring that America is “a nation addicted to it’s own past”. In short: the country is ripe for total collapse and the details of Nick’s case could sway power because Nakamura is one the United States’ top financial advisors. Simmons expertly reveals these details as the story progresses, oftentimes presenting events in non-sequential order so as to heighten the drama. When it’s not being overtly political and therefore distracting, the writing proves itself to be cleverly subtle and more conducive to putting the reader inside the story.
Meanwhile, the prominence of the flashback drug itself allows for exploration of some probable outcomes, like criminals (sporting their AI T-shirts that smack-talk) committing crimes specifically so they can experience them again and again via the drug. One of these so-called flashgangs is what Nick’s son Val calls home. Val’s gripping story soon leads to a well-choreographed dramatic crescendo (coinciding with a riotous land grab in California) that leads him and his grandfather to seek refuge with the estranged Nick Bottom, an event that, as details emerge even further, bode ill for Nick and the country. Val’s story thread adds to the family drama of the novel – the other component being how Nick copes with Dara’s death, particularly in light of new evidence that’s tied to his case. This drama works because it involves characters readers can care about; they have affectations that make them endearing.
And that’s the formula to Flashback’s success: it combines several levels of enjoyment and cycles between them in a way that allows each one to support the other: it’s all at once a competent, far-reaching murder mystery, an engrossing family drama and a cautionary tale. And it works.